Anxiously Eyeing the Skies in the Sunny South

Middle Oconee River, GA drought in October 2007 | Ben Emanuel

Middle Oconee River, GA drought in October 2007 | Ben Emanuel

Here in Georgia, it’s been a cool, wet spring so far. That’s an especially good thing after drought conditions last year that were as severe here as anywhere in the country.  But in my conversations with local water managers and other water-watchers lately, I’ve noticed a unanimous sentiment: the nagging worry that we’ll have another dry summer.

The worry, of course, is about more than the weather.  It’s about having another tough year at the task of balancing many social, environmental, and economic needs for water.  If the past decade is any indication, sustainably managing the water in this corner of the country is increasingly complex, contentious, and difficult – and a dry year only makes things harder.

The Southeast, after all, is looking more and more like the Southwest when it comes to the topic of water scarcity.  Rivers are threatened, upstream and downstream communities are in conflict, and arguably the future wellbeing of the region might depend as much on making smart water decisions today as on just about anything else.

It’s no accident, then, that Southeastern rivers suffering the strains of drought and increasing water demand have turned up on our top ten list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® in recent years.  Last year, we highlighted the Chattahoochee River and the misguided proposals to build more dams in North Georgia and pump more water out of the ’Hooch.  Far from bringing water security to Metro Atlanta, these proposals would only put more strain on the river and on Georgia’s relations with its neighbors downstream.

The update for now on the Chattahoochee is that both of the reservoir proposals we spotlighted appear to be moving very slowly, if at all.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is wise to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Glades Reservoir proposal, given the magnitude of the project.  The reservoir proposal itself, however, continues to change shape, which has helped delay the analysis of the project and its impacts.  The Bear Creek Reservoir proposal’s status appears fuzzy at best, but we do know that it failed to demonstrate need in order to receive funding last year under a state water supply financing program.

Just three years ago, we highlighted North Carolina’s Little River for similar reasons as the Chattahoochee listing.  To meet projected future water demand, the City of Raleigh has long proposed to build a new reservoir on the Little River, at great cost to local residents and to the river system.  However, as my Carolina colleague Peter Raabe reported last fall, Raleigh is looking now at smarter, lower-cost, lower-impact water supply solutions rooted in water efficiency and using existing infrastructure rather than building a new dam.

And there are many more stories of key water decision points looming across the Southeast. For most of them, the ending hasn’t been written yet – and now is a critical time for the region to embrace smart water strategies for the future.  We’ll be talking more about water scarcity in the Southeast with the release of this year’s America’s Most Endangered Rivers® list on Wednesday, April 17.  Check your bathroom for leaks, and check back here soon.